Driven by Fire(4)

By: Anne Stuart

The little ones bounced back more easily. When she climbed into the bus behind Soledad, she heard the buzz of noise, and the sudden, relieved laughter of a young child. She turned, needing the solace of it, only to see the man who’d seemed so threatening less than an hour ago squatting down beside a particularly grubby child, talking to him in calm, liquid Spanish. She couldn’t hear his words, but she could see the child’s reaction—gleeful and mesmerized. Maybe the man just had that effect on people, she thought for a moment. And then he rose and saw her, and his face went cool and blank, like a killer’s face.

She knew what a killer’s face looked like, thanks to her father. She knew this man had been responsible for some, if not all, of the dead men on board. Danger, Will Robinson! flashed in her mind.

“You can go home now,” he said to her.

She couldn’t resist. “Oh, may I?” she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “How kind of you to dismiss me.”

“If it were up to me you’d be answering a lot more questions, Ms. Parker,” he said. “But my friends on the police force tell me you’re untouchable. How much do you pay for that privilege?”

She bit back her instinctive reply. In fact, their hands-off approach with her came more from the work she did and the help she gave rather than her father’s generous payoffs, but the guilt that had been pushed to the back of her mind surged forward again, and he looked at her sharply, as if reading her mind.

“Nothing at all, John Doe,” she snapped. “The good I do outweighs any possible infringement on policy.”

He cocked his head to one side. “They might believe it. I don’t. And the name’s Ryder. Matthew Ryder. You’re going to be hearing it again.” It was a clear threat—the farthest thing from flirtation she could imagine—but she simply smiled at him.

“I’m looking forward to it.” And she realized with slightly horrified amazement that she actually was.

Chapter Two

“What the fuck?” Six weeks later Matthew Ryder was sitting in the inner office of the American Committee for the Preservation of Democracy, nursing a glass of scotch that he shouldn’t have been drinking before noon, when the sound of the front doorbell of the old mansion in the Garden District shot through his head like a spike. Of course he had a hangover, so even the wind in the live oak trees surrounding the house would feel like the universe crashing down around him, but he’d been counting on a peaceful day all to himself. Granted, it was just past eleven, but it was a Sunday, and the Crescent City seemed to have two things on its mind on Sundays—football and drinking. He was holding up his end on the drinking part, but he didn’t give a crap about football. In fact, he didn’t give a crap about anything but being left alone, and yet standing outside the broad double doors of the recently refurbished mansion was Ms. Jennifer Gauthier Parker, Esquire, one of the last people he wanted to see on a very long list of people he wanted to avoid.

Ms. Parker was, of course, a member of the ancient Gauthier family, one of the oldest in New Orleans, wielding more power than any other comparable family, and in the Big Easy, power was even more corrupting than in Washington, DC. The Gauthiers were as dirty as they came, except, presumably, for the saintly Ms. Parker, who had left the family business for the virtuous life of a pro bono immigration lawyer.

He stared at the high-definition screen that was a far cry from most surveillance systems, into the impatient, ridiculously pure face of his current nemesis. Parker looked to be in her late twenties, with a head of reddish brown curls, a stubborn mouth, opaque eyes, and the kind of rounded figure he particularly liked. Too bad she was such a major pain in the ass. She had one of her stray waifs beside her, a small, slight female figure with a bowed head of thick black hair. He didn’t give a shit about her either. He just wanted to drink in peace.

Speaking of pain in the ass, Ms. Jennifer Parker was still ringing his doorbell, and he rose, kicking the wastebasket across the room. It was empty, of course—any paper that they used, and they used damned little, was shredded and burned—but the clanging noise expressed his bad temper perfectly. It also rocketed through his head, and he wanted to groan. Too bad he had no reason to sock Parker in the nose—though if he did she’d probably shriek and make his splitting head even worse.

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